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What the Bee Is to the Hive: Digital Syndicalism and Education

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[An alternative version of this essay, with hyperlinks, is available here.]

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“We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.”
Marx, Capital (Vol. 1) (1867), Chapter 7 “The Labour-Process and the Process of Producing Surplus-Value”

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A railroad, a mine, a factory, a ship, are to the workers who use them what a hive is to the bees, at once their tool and their home, their country, their territory, their property.
Proudhon from General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1923), “Sixth Study: Organization of Economic Forces”

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First, a question of definition: what name do we give to the electronic communication network that with its proliferating forms, practices, and relations  increasingly pervades everyday life?  Some possibilities include: Web 2.0, the Read/Write Web, the Semantic Web, the Distributed Web, New Media.  I prefer a name that, while not so popular, seems to capture the essential difference posed by new versions of information and communication technology: sociomedia.  While other names isolate important features of this new ICT, the term “sociomedia,” according to Edward Barrett, “suggests that computer media exist for social purposes: as means to objectify, exchange and collaborate, invoke, comment upon, modify, and remember thoughts and ideas (including ‘information’).”    Sociomedia underscores the ways in which popular ICT’s now gravitate around the “social construction of knowledge” (2), knowledge that comes in all kinds of forms and flavors.

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Axel Bruns identifies four primary affordances of sociomedia: probablistic, not directed problem-solving; equipotentiality, not hieararchy; granular, not composite tasks; shared, not owned content. (Affordances are actionable properties between the world and an actor, or as Donald Norman describes them “those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used.” (9)). While the last which invokes Proudhon’s distinction between ownership and possession (What is Property?)- has garnered a majority of attention on the left, I want to focus on “granularity.”  In Bruns’ sense, granularity occurs when a single, segmented task is decomposed and distributed into modular, recombinant tasks.  Here, we can think of open source development projects like the blogging platform, WordPress, where programmers are drawn into a coding community through small problems fixing a bug here, adding a bit of functionality there, writing a new theme rather than totalizing revisions.  To use Eric Raymond’s famous metaphors: the granularity of software development like this transforms the planned, hierarchical, centralized  “cathedral” of proprietary software development into a “a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches” (Raymond).

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Granularity is however more than just a reorganization of labor.  It is a constituent element of sociomedia.  Granularity reflects a shift within sociomedia from, in Pierre Levy’s terms, the molar to the molecular.  By disaggregating and distributing totalities, Levy says, sociomedia does not simply reproduce and distribute messages . . . but enables us to create and modify them at will  . .. Always in the process of reorganization, [sociomedia] offers a reservoir, a dynamic matrix through which a navigator, reader, or user can create an individual text based on the needs of the moment (49).  Take for example the current fate of the newspaper.  Once digitized and distributed, and so decomposed from its molar form, the newspaper undergoes a “molecular” unbundling: “When a newspaper moves online, the bundle falls apart,” Nicholas Carr reports.  “Readers don’t flip through a mix of stories, advertisements, and other bits of content. They go directly to a particular story that interests them, often ignoring everything else. In many cases, they bypass the newspaper’s “front page” altogether, using search engines, feed readers, or headline aggregators like Google News, Digg, and Daylife to leap directly to an individual story. . . .  For the publisher, the newspaper as a whole becomes far less important. What matters are the parts. Each story becomes a separate product standing naked in the maketplace” (Carr 153).   Likewise, consider the death of the record album.  Thanks to iPods, iTunes, Pandora,, and a host of other sociomedia platforms, people now listen to and buy singles instead of whole albums. As compared to singles, in 2009 albums accounted for only six percent of music sales (Anderson).  The album has become a “commodity in disfavor” (Leeds). The decomposition of the album into the granularity of the single has disrupted the economics of popular music, disorganised the production of popular music, given listeners new kinds of control over their music, and unleashed a wave of creativity centered on playlists, mashups, and remixes.

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At the most material level, granularity follows from digitization, the translation of physical forms into informational content, atoms into bits, vinyl into ones and zeros. The implications of granularity for social, political, and cultural experience are extensive.  And, in the interests of the dictum that form and function are related, I want to present some of the connections between sociomedia and autonomidad in a granular fashion.

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Naturally, the Anarchists say, it is necessary that society be organized. But this new organization should be done freely, socially, and, certainly, from the bottom. The principle of organization should arise, not from a centre created in advance to monopolize the whole and impose itself on it, but — what is exactly the opposite — from all quarters, to lead to points of co-ordination, natural centers designed to serve all these quarters.” Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Book Two: Bolshevism and Anarchism)

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The decomposition of totalities into granularity allows people to organize information and objects in new ways.  Take, for example, the “social bookmarking” application called delicious. Delicious allows its users to collect bookmarks, or web pages of interest to them, and to add tags (or “metadata”) to these bookmarks, thus allowing them to associate pieces of the web in novel and individual ways.  A single web page on Voline, for instance, might be marked with mutliple tags: anarchism, Russia, revolution, or state.  By clicking on a tag, users can associate “Voline” with a variety of different contexts, depending on their contingent interests and purposes.  They can also share tags.  The “cathedral” of knowledge, organized in a static, hierarchical order, thus gives way to the “bazaar” of knowledge, organized in fluid, bottom-up, dissipative structures.

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In other words, granularity helps to transform taxonomy into “folksonomy” (Krosky),   orders of knowledge generated by people rather than experts.  Taxonimic orders are arborescent, imposing a priori schemes on knowledge and users.   They assume that “knowledge has a geography, this it has a top-view, that it has a shape” (Weinberger 63).  Folksonomies are decomposed and decentralized; like Voline’s ideal organization, they are assembled and disassembled according to need, purpose, and desire.  More importantly, like Voline’s organization, the folksonomy possesses no margins.  Or, rather, the relation between margins and centers is dynamic and unstable, depending on the flux of interest and occasion.  To invoke the French anthropologist, Michel deCerteau’s distinction: folksonomies create spaces out of places.  “The law of the proper,” according to deCerteau, “rules in the place.”  But spaces are “composed of intersections of mobile elements.”    Space “occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities” (117).

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All that will demand an immense knowledge and many heads ‘overflowing with brains’ in this government. It will be the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and elitist of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy of real and counterfeit scientists and scholars, and the world will be divided into a minority ruling in the name of knowledge, and an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe unto the mass of ignorant ones!”  Bakunin, “On the International Workingmens Association and Karl Marx” (1872)

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The anti-system effects of granularity transform knowledge into a social act and disarticulate the relationship between truth and authority.   Perhaps the best known example of this disarticulation is Wikipedia, where the production of knowledge is redistributed amongst a mass of participants, each contributing small, local pieces of knowledge.  Other examples might include Linux, scientific research on protein structures(Guardian), GasBuddy (a site where users report on local prices for gasoline). This peer-production of knowledge is also known as “crowd-sourcing” a process whereby an institution or organization surrenders internal functions to an external “undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call” (Howe).  The underlying premise of crowd-sourcing reflects the epistemology of granularity: more, different knowers know more than one, certified knower.  Or, as Eric Raymond has famously phrased it: Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”

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Numerosity is only one factor in crowd-sourcing.  The other key ingredient is difference.  In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki, a best-selling proponent of crowd-sourcing, identifies four necessary conditions for collective wisdom: diversity of opinion, independence, de-centralization, and a means of aggregation (10).   The knowledge-space of sociomedia is structured  by heterogeneity rather than homogeneity.Bakunin criticizes “scientific intelligence” because it articulates truth and authority.  He correctly sees that Marx’s “People’s State” institutionalizes the power of technocratic expertise.  Like Bakunin, sociomedia denigrates expertise.  Thanks to crowd-sourcing and peer-production, Charles Leadbetter and Paul Miller write: “The relationship between amateurs and professionals is becoming more fluid and dynamic.  It is not a zero-sum game” (23).

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Like taxononimic regimes of order, expertise invests knowledge in hierarchical, imitative, and institutional structures.  Sociomedia, on the other hand, decomposes expertise into dispersed, participatory, and contingent relations. “The manifold deployment of the capacity to act from below,” says Raul Zibechi, “disarticulates the institutional” (12).  Technocratic expertise, with its “aristocrac[ies] of learning [and] intellect” (Bakunin God and State), is a prime victim of sociomedia’s disarticulations.  Or, as David Weinberger phrases it, in a world made “miscellaneous” by sociomedia: “an Oz-like authority that speaks in a single voice with unshakable confidence is a blow hard.  Authority now comes from enabling us inescapably fallible creatures to explore differences among us, together (143).

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For me, there is no dichotomy between creation and reaction.  For me, each is a moment of the same, since you can only create if you are reacting against that which has already been created but doesn’t work for you.”  Ezequiel, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina

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Granularity supports a corrosive culture of process.  Because it decomposes wholes, totalities, and other molar forms into miscellany, parts, and modules, granularity supports practices of continuous revision and reappropriation.  The cultural artifact becomes porous and flexible; like Linux or Wikipedia, the artifact is never finished but instead becomes a moment in a process of development, recombination, and aggregation.   This constant flow of activity gives rise to the open temporality of “versioning,” where discrete moments are marked by superceding numbers or other markers: OS 9.0, 9.5, X, Tiger, Leopard,Snow Leopard.  But, the process effect also gives rise to new forms of cultural creativity: as decomposed cultural products are reassembled, granularity enables the  “mutant semiotics” (Levy) of the remix and mashup.   In music, DJ’s sample and copy, cut, and paste digital tracks to create exotically hybridized performances (Navas).  Data mashups allow sociomedia users to integrate mapping applications with local data to track apartment rentals, crime rates, and present virtual driving tours of Detroit (“Driving Detroit”).  On YouTube, fans hijack the graphic rendering engines of video games to create homemade movies called machinima (Journal of Visual Culture).  Granularity enables vernacular creativity and fosters a DIY culture where users experiment with applications, data, narrative, beats, images, and video.

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As Jonathan Lethem’s tribute to cultural “plundering” from Nabokov to Dylan illustrates, and as Mikhail Bakhtin’s arguments about the origin of the novel demonstrate, this kind of symbolic creativity, “where symbols and practices are selected, reselected, highlighted and recomposed to resonate further appropriated and particularized meanings” (Willis 21) is not new.  When the “separation of the object of creation from the creating subject” (Holloway 58) is abolished, “there is then creative reading as well as creative writing,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1837.  Yet, sociomedia redistributes the means and matter of symbolic creativity in radically new ways that underscore contemporary capitalism’s parasitic relationship to “its [own] instability and even its subversion” (Willis 21).  And, within this vernacular creativity, the consumer of cultural commodities re-emerges as the cultural hacker or, in a more old-fashioned parlance, as a bricoleur.

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In Marina Sitrin’s oral history of “horizontalidad” in Argentina, creativity is a recurring and central term.  Speaking to the exhaustion of conventional politics and ideology, one young interviewee simply asserts: “I think that creativity is the key word” (99).  Elsa, who joined with others to occupy and operate a clinic, talks about workplace changes in similar terms: bosses and managers impose “cielings” on workers and, she says, “don’t let you grow beyond it, they don’t let you advance, change or create, don’t you think?  but what we’re doing it letting human beings develop, giving people the ability to think and contribute ways of resisting and creating” (77).  “This is a new place,” Natalia says of her occupied building, “one that’s distinct from institutionalized places.  it is a place where we can create new ways of being social, new senses of sociability” (150).  Whatever particular structures, roles, or practices emerge from horizontalidad, the excitement and energy that infuse Sitrin’s collection flow from new-found senses of creativity discovered in the cracks and fissures of a social world in decomposition.  Rediscovering the capacity for making and doing, Stirner’s interviewees rediscover the agency of the bricoleur, reappropriating language, ideas, and relations to remake places and selves.   The excitement and meaning of horizontalidad depend on this reassertion of vernacular creativity, similar to the “granular” creativity fostered by sociomedia.

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I want to turn now, briefly, to a particular example of the effects of sociomedia’s corrosive possibilities: education.  Currently, in the U.S. and around the globe, education is being aggressively re-organized around a regime of “academic capitalism” (Slaughter and Rhoades) itself a reflex of neoliberalism.  I have written about this restructuring elsewhere (Hanley 2004). Within higher education, this has resulted in “the increasing authority of market-like practices, roles, and ideologies within the academy” (Hanley 2005).  In particular, three new values have become central to universities: competition, commercialization, and casualization (of academic labor).  Educational technology has played an important role in this process, as universities explore ways to use technology to increase efficiencies in labor and resources.

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In general, and consonant with academic capitalism, educational technology, especially through an almost ubiquitous deployment of the CMS (Course Management System) or LMS (Learning Management System), reinforces the centralizing, standardizing and rationalizing tendencies of academic capitalism (Kotkamp).  This particular institutionalization of technology hiearchizes and centralizes control over teaching ( administrators at the top,  instructors and students at the bottom) and inscribes an equally authoritarian model of teaching and learning: teachers “deliver” content and manage tasks, students are reduced to passive recipients (Hanley forthcoming).Yet, the logic of sociomedia resists this regime of educational technology.

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Let me sketch several points of resistance.  First, the granularity of sociomedia applications and data encourages a kind of anti-institutional bricolage: the teacher-bricoleur gathers, arranges, and modifies technologies to meet his or her circumstances.  Instead of generic discussion forums, the teacher creates a wiki page of problem sets designed to address the intersection between his or her disciplinary knowledge in physics and the needs of his or her students.  Another physics faculty member might draw lab demonstrations from MITs Opencourseware site and mash them up with annotation webware like Digo.

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Second, the bricoleur-faculty draws on and engages students in the expanding new literacies fostered by sociomedia’s new affordances.  Whether via blogs or more explicit mulitmedia tools like Flickr and Glogster, the bricoleur-faculty asks students to make meaning through new conjunctions of sound, image, and text.  In the process, the bricoleur-faculty explicitly develops both the students and his or her multiliteracies (New London Group)  navigating new semiotic landscapes that require new skills and new creativities.

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Third, the bricoleur-faculty requires new kinds of support and new forms of faculty development.  The one-shot workshop designed to inoculate faculty with the limited,  non-transferable technical skills required to manipulate the CMS how do I add the syllabus? how do I create a new discussion forum? no longer suffices to understand the grounded aesthetics of the mashup.  Brief initiations guided by technology staff give way to communities of practice (Wenger) where questions  of teaching and learning are integral to thinking about technology.  Since every bricoleurs practice is local and different, sharing and extended, collaborative engagement among departmental, disciplinary, and affiliated colleagues becomes the means through which practitioners discover and develop the relationship between learning and technology.  The bricoleur-faculty demands less investment in bureaucracy and administration and more investment in faculty and community-building.  Sociomedia can play an important role in resisting academic capitalism by helping to extend and amplify the teacher’s autonomy and so to remake institutions from the bottom-up.
In my gloss of sociomedia I have focused on the constitutive affordance of granularity, over-emphasizing, perhaps, one element of “dispersing power and inventing ample modes of cooperation” (141) that Raul Zibechi locates as the “double movement” of the “communitarian dynamic” (140).  In sociomedia, granularity decomposes and disperses knowledge, authority, and creativity.  Without this granularity, the kinds of “ample modes of cooperation” that drive sociomedia would stutter and collapse but, the “architecture of participation” (O’Reilly) that supports sociomedia requires an exodus beyond repetition and imitation, into singularity and difference.  Today, this movement constitutes a site of real struggle: sociomedia users disrupt, subvert, remix, and create, while capital redoubles its efforts to claw back, enclose, regulate, and normalize these gestures toward autonomy.

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Finally, I am not arguing here for a “Twitter revolution.”  People make revolutions, not tweets.  Rather, in trying to point to connections between sociomedia and central motifs within the anarcho-syndicalist tradition, I am emphaszing the importance of counter-culture and or within potencia.  The famous Preamble of the IWW ends with the claim that “we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old,” an echo perhaps of Marx’s famous lines on the Commune: “[The working class] have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.”  As Salvatore Salerno reminds us in his study of the Wobblies: “Wobblies replaced the institutional basis of unionism with a conception of culture and community that was primary and constitutive.  They created and used cultural expressions as a means of unifying workers and as a basis to move against repressive social conditions” (149).  Everyday, across the world, people are using sociomedia to discover new cultural ways of doing within and at times athwart the imperatives and structures of late capitalism.  The explicit political consequences of this self-activity are unclear and, probably, quite contradictory.  Yet, within the granular space of sociomedia, new relations, practices, and capacities prefigure the “elements of a new society.”

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